Crime

Bookkeeper gets prison, $300,000 bill for stealing from Bellingham restaurants

The La Fiamma Wood Fire Pizza restaurant in Bellingham, Wash.
The La Fiamma Wood Fire Pizza restaurant in Bellingham, Wash. THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

A Bellingham bookkeeper must repay nearly $300,000 and serve more than three years in prison for embezzling from the owners of two popular downtown restaurants, a judge ruled Thursday, July 21.

The scheme came to a halt when Daniel Bothman, a co-owner of La Fiamma Wood Fire Pizza and Fiamma Burger, got a call on Jan. 8, 2014, warning him of a possible fraudulent charge on his Capital One credit card – which made no sense because Bothman didn’t have a Capital One credit card.

A card with his name on it, however, was used to pay a $709 water bill at the Sudden Valley home of Jonathan Emil Berry, 36, a bookkeeper for La Fiamma. He shared an office with co-owners Dan and Ken Bothman. That month, the Bothmans began a grueling review of their business accounts.

By the time criminal charges were filed in spring 2014, a forensic accountant had dug up 255 checks forged by Berry, according to charging papers. He had started writing checks himself to pay for a lifestyle that was, in his words, “never realistic given our incomes.”

Berry earned about $21 an hour working 25 to 35 hours a week. He claims his unhealthy marriage pressured him into paying himself a higher income. In court records, he said his wife would threaten to leave him when they didn’t have enough money to buy what she wanted.

They bought a home on Lookout Mountain Lane that almost instantly lost about half of its value in 2008, he said, with the collapse of the housing bubble. Over the next few years, they took on credit card debt to make ends meet but could not keep up.

One day after Berry’s arrest in March 2014, his wife filed for divorce.

Charging papers state, over four years, Berry had written forged checks that totaled:

▪  $49,100 to Jonathan Berry.

▪  $51,000 to his wife.

▪  $83,400 to an anti-bullying nonprofit he ran called the Pacific Violence Prevention Institute.

▪  $6,000 to City University of Seattle, where he was working toward his master’s degree.

On top of that, Ken Bothman found more than $11,800 in unauthorized purchases on a company Discover credit card from spring 2012 to spring 2013. Most of the transactions were for cash advances, gasoline and homeowner dues for the Berry home in Sudden Valley.

Unfortunately I can’t undo what I’ve done, all I can do is make better choices going forward and do everything I can to make it right.

Jonathan Emil Berry, former bookkeeper for La Fiamma

Ken Bothman spent months poring over financial records, he said in court, and it left him feeling like a ghost of himself: “I peered into the black pit of despair, and it terrified me that I would not just lose my business, but myself.”

Berry hadn’t been paying business taxes to the IRS. The Bothmans found they owed almost as much to the government as the amount stolen outright. In the end, Ken Bothman told a judge Thursday, they were in the hole over $400,000. (Both restaurants remain open in the core of downtown Bellingham.)

“As much as I’ve tried to understand the psychology of what constitutes this level of deceit, I am baffled by it to this day,” Ken Bothman said in court. “I would go so far as to say this is more (than) degrading, it’s the complete disregard for us as human.”

In a letter to the court, Berry said he had been working toward a new career as an electrical line worker, and he plans to pay full restitution.

“Unfortunately I can’t undo what I’ve done,” he wrote, “all I can do is make better choices going forward and do everything I can to make it right.”

Restitution has been set at $298,877.95.

There are a couple of gentlemen here, and people who work at those restaurants, who almost lost their entire livelihood because you chose to put yourself ahead of that.

Judge Charles Snyder

Berry paid back $20,000 in April when he pleaded guilty to six counts of theft in the first degree. He borrowed that money from family. In his plea paperwork he agreed to pay back an additional $80,000 by July or else admit to three more counts of theft and face a longer sentence. He did not make that extra payment, and on Thursday he pleaded guilty to a total of nine counts of first-degree theft.

This week, Judge Charles Snyder sentenced Berry to 38 months in prison, the standard for someone, like Berry, who has no criminal record. The judge told Berry he could never give back the trust, comfort or years of hard work he’d stolen from the Bothmans – but he could at least give them their money back.

“There are a couple of gentlemen here, and people who work at those restaurants, who almost lost their entire livelihood,” Snyder said, “because you chose to put yourself ahead of that.”

Correction Friday, July 22. The amount Berry agreed to pay back by July, or else face a stiffer sentence, was missing a zero. It was corrected to read $80,000.

Caleb Hutton: 360-715-2276, @bhamcaleb

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